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Go far together: Lessons in collective leadership

The difference between the prophet and the madman is that people listen to the prophet.

A single teacher can be dismissed as a lunatic. It’s harder to dismiss an entire network with a shared vision and specific solutions. I learned the power of collective leadership in 2007, when I met 50 Teachers of the Year for the first time. Despite teaching different grade-levels in different states, we were all dealing with similar problems. Over-testing. A narrowing of the curriculum. A deficit mindset that treated children, teachers, and entire communities as a long list of deficiencies rather than considering their strengths, needs, and dreams.

We came to agreement on ten proposed changes to improve No Child Left Behind. Crafting the document was hard work, with plenty of spirited debate, compromise, and late-night conference calls. But in the end, we had a document that was not the work of a single teacher, but a consensus that reflected the shared priorities of 50 teachers from 50 states.

We shared the document with our Senators, Representatives, and their legislative aides, and they took concrete action on some of the changes we proposed. A Senator from Arkansas introduced a bill to measure individual student growth when determining whether a school had met AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress). A congressman from my region introduced a bill to expand the period an English Learner is exempt from high-stakes standardized tests from one year to three.

I have learned a lot about collective leadership in the ten years since that shared effort, sometimes through mistakes and setbacks, often through hard-won successes and small triumphs. 

Here are a few lessons learned; I would love to hear your own additions to the list.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (African Proverb)

The proverb has it right. Collective leadership takes time. We have to learn to compromise, which begins by making sure to listen more than we speak.

Compromise, to me, means more than the acceptance that we won’t get everything we want. It’s also about developing the humility to accept that what other people care about is just as legitimate as our own priorities. They possess pieces of the complicated truth that we don’t.

I think a lot about the parable of the blind men and the elephant. One blind man was absolutely certain that an elephant is long and flexible, because he had grabbed the trunk. Another was sure that an elephant resembled a leathery tree, because he had wrapped his arms around its leg.

They were all right, and they were all wrong, at the same time. We have to balance our own perspective and experience, which is highly dependent on the context where we teach, with the partial truths our partners hold.

Whatever the scope of the work at hand, we’re teaching.

Collective leadership, at its heart, is collective teaching. We have to figure out what knowledge we want to impart to legislators, administrators, parents, the public, philanthropies and businesses.

As in our classrooms, that act of teaching begins with building trust. It’s easier to do that, of course, with an adorable seven-year old missing her two front teeth than with a Senator in an imposing suit who has voted for policies we find abhorrent. But we have to build rapport with that Senator, which begins the same way it does when we meet a new student: by seeing him or her as a three-dimensional human being, finding out what he or she cares about, asking genuine questions, and truly listening to the answers.

It’s not about a seat at the table. It’s what you do once you’re there that counts.

In a recent interview about the movie Hidden Figures, African-American astronaut Mae Jemison said she realized early on that there was no point in her being at the table if she acted and spoke exactly like all the white men already seated at that table.

The halls of power have a seduction that very few of us are fully immune to. Sometimes an individual teacher, or even a handful, will be picked out and treated by powerful people with a respect and dignity not always afforded to our profession as a whole. In those situations, it’s easy to lose sight of the commitment we carry to speak not only for ourselves and our own students, but for the teachers and students who are not represented at that table.

It’s always easier not to rock the boat. In those intimidating meetings with powerful people, it’s tempting to say the words more likely to bring an approving smile than an uncomfortable grimace.

I was sitting in a meeting where the former Deputy Secretary of Education articulated his belief that No Child Left Behind had not narrowed the curriculum. Another committee member turned to me and asked whether I agreed. I took a deep breath. Then I explained respectfully but clearly that I disagreed with the Deputy Secretary, and that in my experience in a high-poverty school filled with English Learners, the fixation on testing had created enormous pressure to strip critical thinking and creativity from the curriculum in favor of test prep.

As Maggie Kuhn said, “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.” Those moments often turn out better than we fear. Sometimes the people we have just challenged respect us more for speaking our convictions. But not always, and it’s never easy.

When the work gets hard, collective leadership can be a source of tremendous strength. Our colleagues can inspire us to keep going, and they can help us stay true to ourselves when the temptation to take the path of least resistance is tempting.

We make this path by walking. Along the way, we meet kindred spirits who laugh with us, challenge us, and help us become better thinkers, teachers, and leaders. They walk the path alongside us. They remind us who we are and help us become better versions of ourselves. These fellow travelers are a gift. They matter as much, in the end, as the path itself.


Justin's post is part of CTQ's March/April blogging roundtable on collective leadership. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media. 

First Photo Caption: Marguerite Izzo, 5th Grade Reading Teacher and 2007 New York Teacher of the Year, speaking as former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan takes notes.

 
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12 Comments

Ben Owens commented on March 28, 2017 at 7:32pm:

It’s down to leadership.

What a powerful article on why it is essential that teachers move away from the comfortable and collectively engage as leaders. This in fact, in my view, is the one essential ingredient in true teacher leadership – the courage and passion to use one’s moral authority as a teacher to bring pragmatic, solution-focused ideas out of the classroom into the policy arena. In doing so, we expand our respective spheres of influence and have a greater stake in affecting positive change for our students, schools, and communities. As the saying goes, if you are not at the table, you are likely on the menu. Rather than simply belly-aching about what is “being done to us,” let us be resolved to follow Justin’s lead do more to engage in the sometimes difficult, but absolutely necessary conversations that must occur for us to better meet the individual needs of every student we have the honor of teaching.

 

Brian Curtin commented on March 29, 2017 at 3:17pm:

The In Between of "Rocking the Boat" & "Being Dragged Behind"

I think you're getting right at an important lesson along this journey toward collective leadership: Finding the medium between "rocking the boat" and "being dragged behind in tow".  You reference the moment in Hidden Figures where Mae Jemison realizes she can't be just another acquiescing voice; or the moment when you personally had to disagree with the Deputy Secretary of Education.  I've seen these moments in my own experiences where teachers are faced with an opportunity to "shake the boat" or say nothign and feel like they're "being dragged behind."  But it's a false dilemma.  Privately, teachers have often shared with me reasons why they choose not to "rock the boat" so to speak, and it always revolves around some version of this:  "If I disagree, they (administrators) are just going to ignore me and do what they want."  So there's a fear in that.  A fear that the teacher is powerless or worse, that there could be negative backlash if choosing to go against the grain.  This gets at Justin's most important message, one for both teachers and administrators alike.  Before collective leadership can even be considered for a moment, first there must be trust. How do we do this?  As Justin puts it, we build trust by "finding out what he or she cares about, asking genuine questions, and truly listening to the answers." Progress happens by building mutual trust and respect, especially during those moments when we disagree.

Jessica Cuthbertson commented on March 29, 2017 at 10:46pm:

On Trust...

Well said, Brian. I firmly believe that standing up and speaking out, whether as an individual or as a collective, takes courage. There is strength and comfort in the collective but often fear, trust issues and other relational or systemic barriers can prevent the collective from forming in the first place, and/or the individuals from risking rocking the boat for the greater good. 

What struck me about Justin's first example was the power of 50 professionals from 50 different contexts coming together for a common cause -- likely few knew each other prior to being in this distinguished group but being a part of that network gave the collective voice, power, and the energy to collaborate and operate as a collective. It made me think about what we share as stakeholders passionate about public education -- teachers, administrators, parents, students, policymakers -- and what a collective of mixed stakeholders might accomplish if the conditions are in place. 

Wendi Pillars commented on April 1, 2017 at 9:05am:

Interesting

...to think that 50 educators, bearing ideas, concerns, and solutions, can come to a consensus when their goals are prioritized and shared. That in itself should be a boost to those who fear, as you say, "going against the grain". I think it's certainly easier at times to sit back and observe, quietly gathering your thoughts, then ultimately digging back into your own position, surrounded by excuses. I've been there. But it's also galvanizing to seek out others, to somehow verbalize what you are thinking, because that invites others to join the conversation--they may have been reticent to speak up and out as well, and a little bit of risk-taking can stir long-reaching ripples. Just reading that Justin had the tenacity to speak out, makes me a tiny bit bolder to stick to my own guns, because it reminds me that I am the expert on what happens in my classroom/ school/ district, and I have the human stories to back up my expertise. So, ultimately, when we feel fear, maybe it's a sign that we're on to something, and realizing that if done in the interests of bettering life for someone else, the values are unending. 

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on April 4, 2017 at 8:45pm:

"Anyone can oppose..."

Wendi, that means a lot. I love this line (from, oddly, the movie The Libertine): "Anyone can oppose. It's fun to be against things. But there comes a time when you have to be FOR something."

What you said really resonated with me about how much easier it is to criticize. Finding fault is always lazier at an intellectual/creative level, but it can also let you off the hook when it comes to action. If the system is just broken, we don't necessarily have to do anything about it. If parts of the system are broken but they can be improved, that means (groan) that we have to take on part of the burden of attempting those fixes--which means not just hard work, but inevitably making some mistakes and making some people mad. It's easier and more fun to do that work, to take responsibility for the mistakes along the way, and to weather that anger when we have colleagues standing shoulder to shoulder with us.

My dad has worked in construction since he was 14, and he said to me once, "You know, there are a thousand ways to build a building. People are so afraid they'll make a mistake that they never even get started. You just have to begin."

Jessica Cuthbertson commented on March 29, 2017 at 11:05pm:

Collective leadership & Political climate

Really enjoyed this post, the concrete examples and anecdotes, and relevant cultural references and quotes. Collective leadership is hard, worthwhile, wonderful work. Thank you, Justin, for writing this and reminding us of what it takes to be successful in collective leadership endeavors. 

Here's my struggle -- I feel like most collective leadership experiences I've been a part of have been with like-minded, solutions-oriented peers. While we may not have agreed on everything we definitely agreed on a core set of principles or values that were student-centered and equity focused. I felt safe and supported in being a part of this type of collective leadership. We shared an unspoken camraderie as public school educators/advocates. 

In this political climate, I don't think it's enough to engage in collective leadership with my tribe/network/community of practice only. I feel like public school proponents are being called to step up in bigger ways and face policy (and policymakers) that do not align with my personal values. How do we best advocate for compromise in a nation so politically divided? I read Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance earlier this year and I felt it helped me understand a socioeconomic subculture and slice of America that I had very little understanding of (or empathy for) prior to reading this text. He talks about the spoken (and unspoken) belief of his teachers and it reminded me of the powerful political role educators can play... How do we best leverage the collective for the greater good of all students? What risks do we need to take that we're not already taking? And how do we work toward compromise in divided communities or states?  

Liz Sheehan commented on March 31, 2017 at 3:23pm:

Embracing the "Pack" Mentality

Collective leadership is more than just working with our colleagues, it's leaning on them too. So often the most worthwhile changes are the ones most difficult to tackle. If teachers approach those issues as "lone wolves," they'll miss out on the opportunity for support from the "wolf pack." The most challenging work can sap strength from even the strongest people; we should never feel as though reach out to others and sharing the burden is problematic. In fact, that group and its efforts may be a school/district/country's greatest asset!

 

 

 

Wendi Pillars commented on April 1, 2017 at 9:37am:

Collective teaching

Love this: "Collective leadership, at its heart, is collective teaching." Of all the things I've done over the years, learning to listen more has been the most fruitful. I have friends who infuriate me with their thinking, but shifting to a teaching mindset has reminded me that I can use their delightfully divergent thoughts to hone my own views while better understanding their reasoning. Rather than get upset or angry, I more easily shake off criticism because I've reframed it as an opportunity to shore up my own case. Inevitably, this includes finding ways to incorporate some of the others' views--and inevitably I find holes in my own logic. Working with different cultures on a daily basis makes it even more necessary, and your stated need for humility in the face of others' pieces of the complex puzzle is key to listening, then reframing. Definitely have myriad opportunities for humility when you stretch outside your comfort zone! 

When figuring out what knowledge we want to impart to legislators, administrators, parents, the public, philanthropies and businesses, though, what are some experiences some of you have had that foster successful knowledge mining? Questioning is such an art--grounded in listening and humility--what are some keys to getting better at it?

What are some ideas you have for creating a more mutual learning experience in the face of differences in opinion?

And most of all, what are some ways the "collective we" can create opportunities for mindful listening amid the haste and the noise of our profession in 2017? 

 

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on April 4, 2017 at 8:52pm:

Wendi, you are my heroine!

Wendi, I love that idea (and wish I could get there) of seeing infuriating beliefs as opportunities to listen, question, and hone our own thinking. It reminds me of a master teacher I worked with in Oakland who said she had reached the point where she actually looked forward to kids with behavioral problems because she thinks, "Oh goodie! A new challenge to solve!"

I heard a great interview about love and relationships that suggested we try to see our partner (when we're furious with her/him) as a child, the way we do our own sons and daughters, with all the emotions and struggles and insecurities kids contain. I think it's useful to do what you describe at two levels: try to understand the rational basis, but also try to understand the underlying emotions, experiences, or fears that shape a particular philosophy or policy approach.

One of my most meaningful policy interactions happened through CTQ between five practicing classroom teachers and about 30 state reps who headed their states' education committees. A state senator from Oklahoma described how frustrated he was at seeing the same low student achievement each year, and he said that's why they kept increasing the testing. I told him the pig parable: "Imagine you have a pig who you keep weighing more and more frequently, but it's not getting any heavier! Testing is weighing the pig. We need to start feeding the pig instead."

We all laughed, but the point sank in. There was this shared frustration at the lack of progress in student achievement in our states, coming on all our parts from a genuine desire to support students, but a very different approach to how best to do that.

Alfred Cedeno commented on April 1, 2017 at 11:22am:

The Lunatic and Belief

I love your opening line, "A single teacher can be dismissed as a lunatic. It’s harder to dismiss an entire network with a shared vision and specific solutions.” It smacks of G.K. Chesterton’s argument in Orthodoxy. He explains how the lunatic believes in himself…entirely in himself, but distrusts all others.

 

While his reasoning applies to a different field, your build a compelling argument here. A single teacher might be a lunatic. A single teacher certainly seems like a lunatic. However, the collective teacher group may also seem crazy if they refuse to listen or consider outside arguments. That’s why your point on compromise is apt: “Compromise, to me, means more than the acceptance that we won’t get everything we want. It’s also about developing the humility to accept that what other people care about is just as legitimate as our own priorities. They possess pieces of the complicated truth that we don’t.” If teachers collectively engage in the process of change while considering this, the dialogue with decision-makers will become more fruitful.

 

Communities, administration, and lawmakers will see a reasonable group committed to the best for students. Change will happen.

 

 

Rebekah Kang commented on April 2, 2017 at 6:41pm:

Rethinking Compromise

"Compromise" was always a word that carried a negative connotation; a word that implied surrendering, giving up, sacrificing. As a teacher leader who is dedicated to improving public education through a collective leadership model, BJustin Minkel made me rethink what this word means. Compromise--I realize--doesn't mean that I'm giving something up, but it is admitting that I do not completely understand the problems we face in schools and I definitely do not know the solutions to fix them. Teachers, parent, students, administrators, counselors, etc. need to work together with a common vision and purpose. 

"They were all right, and they were all wrong, at the same time." I'm going to post this quote on my desk to keep me humble, curious, and hopeful that together we can build schools that serve all students. 

 

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on April 5, 2017 at 4:25pm:

Making it perfect? Or making it better?

Rebekah, that makes my day--thank you. What reassures me when the system seems too tangled and flawed is that we don't have to make it perfect. We just have to make it better than it is now, and there's plenty of room to do that. 

A professor of Action Research I had in college made a point that I still think about. He said that we often get hung up on debating our philosophical differences and  never even get to the action point. If we go straight to the action, we can often find common ground despite those differences.

Example: The Congressman who sponsored our bill to give ELLs more time to acquire English before being tested has very different beliefs than I do, or than most of the teachers who drafted the ten changes do. But on that one issue, we agreed on an action step--we didn't have to debate school choice or immigration policy to get that specific bill introduced.

Thanks for reading and responding!

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